Silver Bullets

30 05 2012

I had an experience on the weekend that got me thinking about so called silver bullets. I went to a mate’s place on Sunday where he held a “green smoothie” workshop run by a couple of Permaculture Gympie oldies in their 70’s (I’m guessing – and maybe I shouldn’t be calling them oldies now I’ve turned 60 myself!). It was all very interesting, and I have no doubt that there are definitely health benefits from consuming such food, but I was a bit gobsmacked by the fact they eat nothing else, and to be brutally honest, they didn’t look like picture perfect examples of great health to me….

Pork, Apple Cider, Fennel, Apple casserole in the AGA. All home grown (except the apples). It was deeeelicious!

I reckon we eat well. We consume little shop bought food, and if we do, we go out of our way to make sure it’s organic and/or as local as possible. We’ve reduced our meat consumption quite a bit, and we absolutely avoid buying supermarket meat which is raised in appalling conditions and is usually full of hormones and antibiotics and fed many other unmentionables. Because we eat a wide variety of food, we tend to eat everything in moderation, and not concentrate on any “silver bullets”.  Or lead ones for that matter!  I actually tried one of their smoothies at lunch time, so I’m not against the idea.

I think we are meant to have a varied diet, which includes some meat, otherwise we would not have canine teeth. These people had a list of “don’t eat” that would make my life miserable….. no coffee, no dairy, no bread, no alcohol, I’m sure there was more…. Oh yeah, sugar.  I have to say, most people consume way too much sugar, but a wee bit now and again won’t kill you….  Give me a break, we only live once, and I’m making the most of what I can eat and drink. I’m dying with a smile on my face…! Even if it kills me.

I came across another “silver bullet” when we visited Zaytuna.  I’m loathe to “have a go” at Geoff Lawton, I respect him and his actions immensely, but he strangely really had it in for “the grid”, going as far as calling it “evil”…  Geoff’s “silver bullet” is to not connect to the grid, but instead run stand alone solar power systems which, if you don’t know what that means, entails storing solar energy in large battery banks to use at night and on cloudy days.  All of Zaytuna’s power comes this way, even though the grid runs right past the door.

Now obviously, if you’re miles from anywhere and it’s going to cost an arm and a leg to connect to the grid, that’s precisely what you do.  Our hybrid system does both in case of grid failure, and we appreciate having the battery backup, but the grid is not evil.

There’s an old saying which I’m sure Bill Mollison first came up with:  “The problem is the solution”.  Yes, the grid as we know it generates gazillions of tons of greenhouse gases (I will NOT enter into discussions over whether Climate Change is caused by humans or not), but only because of what we connect to it.  If we continue hooking up dirty coal fired power stations and nukes that cause serious problems whenever anything goes wrong to it, then yes we are  shitting in our own collective nests.  Connecting arrays of old fridges, air conditioners, and gigantic plasma screens to the grid is obviously stupid.  Many people do this unfortunately…..  Evil?  I’ll let you decide.  What I think is needed is loads of education.  Switching to toxic batteries so that we can continue on our merry consumptive ways is not on.  In any case, there are not enough resources on the planet for all of us to do this, we have to learn new tricks.

At least, to their credit, Zaytuna runs on the smell of an oily rag.  Most houses in Australia could not cope with running on “just” 13 kWh/day.  That Geoff and his merry band of followers can run a whole farm with around fifty people on those numbers is impressive.  The average around here is 30, for just one house!  Remember, we use just 2.5 (confirmed yet again in the bill that arrived today, nearly $260 in credit…)

When I told Geoff we generated so much surplus solar power our neighbours unwittingly used it to run their houses in daylight hours, he looked somewhat surprised.  I don’t think any of this had crossed his mind.  The grid need not be evil, it simply needs to be used intelligently.

What must now occur is for the populace to be educated in understanding that they can do way more with way less, that it won’t kill them, and that as a matter of fact…. they have little choice.  There are no silver bullets.

Great TED talk I thought my readers would like…

21 05 2012

We feel instinctively that societies with huge income gaps are somehow going wrong. Richard Wilkinson charts the hard data on economic inequality, and shows what gets worse when rich and poor are too far apart: real effects on health, lifespan, even such basic values as trust.

I’ve bought a car…..

18 05 2012

No, you’re not reading it wrong, I did really buy a car.  It’s a ute (pickup for all you Yanks…), and the main reason I bought it is that it was a steal.  So cheap, I’m almost embarrassed to report it…

A year or so ago, friends of ours’ neighbour apparently came home from work in the ute and said to his wife “the aircon’s not working’.  So he parked it outside, and bought a new one.  Such is the wasteful state of our modern society it appears.  I became aware of it of course, but he wanted $800 for it, a fair price too, and I didn’t have $800 lying around, so I ignored it.  As did the owner.  It sat there, all forlorn, accumulating grime from stuff falling out of trees above it, looking more and more like no one loved it.  Eventually, I think, the neighbours must’ve complained about the poor old thing bringing property values in the street down, and he told our friends he was going to have it towed away.  Or I could have it for $200.  So of course, said friends called me to let me know.

Armed with jumper leads, we drove the Citroen up to the ute, and it started first kick…..  the aircon fan belt had come off the pulley, and was rubbing on the water pump, causing some alarming smoke (at least to the women present at this event!).  My multi meter told me the battery was totally stuffed, refusing all charge from the obviously operating alternator.  Unfazed, I jumped in and drove it down the road and back, and thought, “definitely worth a couple of hundred bucks”…

The owner arrived home by then, and said it would need new shock absorbers, as it “wallowed” along as one drove it, and the windscreen would need replacing to pass roadworthy certification, and it did look terrible after sitting there for a year or so.  A deal was struck regardless, and I took it home a couple of days later.

I always buy belts for my mowers at the local hardware store.  They have every conceivable size hanging from their ceiling in a most amazingly organised fashion.  Bring your belt, any belt, and they’ll measure it and match it.  Never failed me.  I ended up with THREE new fan belts (they were all stuffed) for nineteen bucks!  When proper automotive ones cost about $25 a pop!  It’s not like there’s anything wrong with mower belts, they are rated heat and oil resistant, and surely, spinning under a mower with wet grass and rocks and sticks and snakes under there can’t do them any good, and they still last……

One of the headlights was also broken and full of water, and the local wreckers supplied a perfectly good one with all bulbs attached for $55.  A quick oil change and some new wiper blades, and really, anything else was just cosmetic……  everywhere I delved, the car was very serviceable indeed, with brake pads only 25% worn, a brand new air cleaner element in place, and seemingly good enough shock absorbers too.  I spoke to the mechanic who was going to do the roadworthy, and he said he wouldn’t be concerned about the windscreen so long as there weren’t any big stars inside my field of vision.  So it stayed.  All I had left to do was replace the battery, and I got a budget one from Supercheap Autos for $58.  It’s only got 6 months warranty, but it’ll do until I recover from what is a large purchase for us….

The tray looked seriously rusted out, but as I started peeling back the layers, I found far more red oxide paint than rust.  Another mate of mine who also owns a ute happened to visit at this stage, and told me how he restored his rusty tray with Penetrol and then painted it with Hammercoat paint…. neither of which I had ever heard of before.  A hundred bucks later, and admittedly many hours of work as well, it looks a million bucks.  I’m really kicking myself now for not taking “before” photos just so I could show you all the difference.

It sailed through the roadworthy, and the “wallowing” all but disappeared when I inflated the tyres properly.  It’s now road registered, the entire project cost me $800……. and I’ve been told I could easily get $3500 for it!  I’m still pinching myself…..

No more carrying hay bales in the boot of the Citroen, or carrying long lengths of timber and step ladders through its cabin.  It won’t be driven that much I expect, I have no idea what fuel consumption I can manage to squeeze out of it either at this stage, won’t know until I fill it up and do a proper mileage run…  In the long run though, I have serious plans for this vehicle; I want to one day convert it to electric, just like this Ford Courier (same car, different badge)…. then I can use all that excess solar power for battery charging!

One Tonner EV Ute Conversion

Electric Motor in Engine Bay

Under Tray Battery Storage

Zaytuna the Permaculture oasis in Northern NSW

2 05 2012

In 2001, as a Greens candidate for the seat of Ryan, I campaigned on the issue of Peak Oil as a real threat to our lifestyles.  A few people listened, some even voted for me, but to this day, Glenda believes my biggest convert was Geoff Lawton.  At the time Geoff was only starting out as a Permaculture Guru, but he and I were nonetheless invited to share the stage at Northey Street City Farm.  I would do a gig on Peak Oil, followed by Geoff’s now famous Greening the Desert project demonstrating how the future could be survived.  From a few things Geoff said to me at the time, it appeared he was not aware of Peak Oil……

Geoff doesn’t remember me.  Can’t blame him, he must meet hundreds or even thousands of times more people than I ever do.  The point of this is that last weekend, Permaculture Noosa organised a bust trip to Geoff’s place, Zaytuna Farm at The Channon in Northern NSW.  He, and his merry band of volunteers, run the Permaculture Research Institute.  And what a hive of activity it is…….  Geoff calls it a “people farm”, where instead of producing total self sufficiency, he produces new blood, inspired and ready to spread the word on surviving the looming collapse.

Zaytuna Farm is a demonstration site and education centre.  You’ll find it in the village of The Channon in NSW. The farm is 27 hectares of ex beef cattle/dairy farm land with an 800 metre boundary on Terania Creek.   Geoff purchased it in 2001, and Zaytuna has since been constantly developed as a showcase of Permaculture design and land use.

Zaytuna is some 45 km from Byron Bay, with an altitude ranging from 83 metres to 30 metres. Its aspect is towards the east to north east with some steeper southern slopes, and gentle northern ones too.  An extensive series of 15 dams (valley dams, ridge point dams, contour dams) and over 2 km of water harvesting swales have been excavated to drought proof the farm during the dry winters.  Food forests have been established and are constantly being extended as more teaching facilities are about to be built.  An amazing variety of bamboo has been established (at least 30 species) for various uses including fresh shoots for food, timber for building, weaving, fishing rods and living hedges.  Bamboo also makes excellent windbreaks. 

Kitchen gardens for growing a huge variety of vegetables and herbs have been planted around the house and commercial kitchen, with species varying from Mediterranean to subtropical.   There is a one acre staple crop garden in the central valley for amaranth, corn, potatoes, broad beans, peas, kale, pumpkins, melons, sweet potato, and cassava. Dairy cows and goats are milked every day. A 2.2 km electric fenced laneway, 6 m wide, has been established around the grazing areas of the farm with several access gates creating a self grazing system to increase the fertility of  the grazing landscape.

Saanan-Nubian cross goats bred for both meat and milk and a flock of ducks and chickens for meat and eggs are free ranged throughout the food forest systems for both weed control and fertility.  Rabbits have been added to the equation of small animal productions, and Geoff told us that over the past eight months, they have produced 75 offsprings for consumption….!  A small Fox Terrier catches mice and rats, while a Cattle dog keeps the foxes at bay…..  Maybe I should invest in such a fox deterrent too…

An impressive yet simple aquaponics system was demonstrated by Geoff… it’s fired me up to possibly even have a go at making one for Mon Abri, if I can find all the bathtubs to recycle needed to make it all work.

The nursery shade house and poly tunnel system fully run on solar-powered drip and mist irrigation where seedling vegetables, fruit trees, legume trees, forest trees and bamboo, are all propagated on site.

Compost, natural anaerobic pro-biotic ferments and worm farms are the main sources of fertiliser for the farm.

The main buildings at Zaytuna are made from straw bale and natural lime plaster.  All drinking water on the site is harvested from roof water rainwater catchment.  All toilets are composting, and all the grey water produced on site is filtered through reed beds.  The electricity needs for the entire farm are met by solar, the energy consumption for this many people being a paltry 13kWh/day according to Geoff.   Most households are not able to run on such low energy demand!

All in all, the visit was awe inspiring, and proof positive that we can survive all the crises we now face, we only have to face them head on and change the way we do everything.

It’s official…..

2 05 2012

Australia WILL be out of oil by 2020

Without oil, modern civilisation doesn’t work

by Mark O’Connor

Treasury’s last Inter-generational Report contains, hidden away on page 91, a simple stunning statement: Australia’s oil will be gone by 2020. The timing could not be worse. By 2020 Peak Oil is likely to have rendered oil imports precarious and costly. And without oil, modern civilisation doesn’t work.

The media ignored this part of the Report, so the ministers of our two major parties and the bureaucrats who advise them, have rarely been required to explain why they let this happen. On those rare occasions the question has been brushed aside with assurances that either market forces will always supply oil (or a substitute) at reasonable prices or Australia has vast reserves of natural gas.

Both these arguments are shaky. Firstly, for many uses, such as aviation, mining, and most road transport, there simply is no good substitute for oil. No one has yet built a gas-powered plane.

It may seem impressive to find an urban taxi scooting around powered by a large tank of compressed gas that has taken over the boot, but the energy required to find and transport that gas, and to compress it to an amazing 2500 psi, and safely seal it in a robust tank, did not come from gas. We are a long way from knowing how to run our civilisation on gas.

And without cheap oil, most business plans might crash. BHP for instance is threatening to pull out of the Olympic Dam expansion unless diesel prices are kept low but the Pentagon’s projection is that oil prices will in time double.

It is also far from clear that market forces will provide oil cheaply, or spread it evenly. The International Energy Agency has provisions to compel equitable sharing of traded petroleum. Yet once Peak Oil bites, energy-producing countries may hoard the increasingly precious stuff, like Russia did with its grain harvest recently, or sell it selectively to their friends. Or to those who bully them.

Energy shortage will affect each country differently, and often via its effects on fertiliser and food production. Australia’s generally thin soils are particularly dependent on fertilisers made from or transported by fossil fuels. As the Immigration Department’s recent Sobels report (p. 89) showed Australia’s future food supplies are not guaranteed.

As well, higher prices may create a rush to “cut green tape”, which is code for going after dirtier and more environmentally destructive forms of energy. Examples include BP’s deep-sea drilling, or the U.S. “fracking” craze with its now well-known health and environmental risks. Optimists argue that the U.S. is now looking to export Liquid Natural Gas, and hence world gas prices are actually falling. Yet some experts believe the shale gas industry drilled the best sites first, hyping prospects to attract investment and that politicians, and the media, desperate to identify a new energy source to support future economic growth, accepted the hype uncritically.

Turning to the government’s second excuse, Australia does not have vast reserves of gas put aside. We have, or have had, very large gas fields, but almost none of this is kept for Australian use, because we don’t reserve gas: we sell the stuff off soon after we find it. Or we all but give it away, in return for ephemeral jobs and often inappropriate or damaging “development”.

The last government to make a creditable attempt to retain Australia’s energy reserves was the Whitlam government – which got into trouble for trying to borrow huge sums to buy back energy reserves that had been sold off while still in the ground. Oddly enough, the lesson most politicians seem to have learnt from this, under the tutelage of the Murdoch Press, is not that further energy discoveries should be retained, but that they should be sold off as fast as “market forces” would like.

Democratic leaders are often so focussed on getting re-elected in one, two or three years, that they make utterly short-sighted decisions to get a temporary upswing in GDP, so they can boast of being “good economic managers”.

On a slightly kinder view, they may be blinded by economic growthism – the belief that if you just keep “the economy”, meaning GDP, growing today, your successors are bound to find some other expedient to keep it growing in the future.

The media often imposes such views. In 2011 when the federal government approved the Wheatstone gas project in W.A. TheAustralian burbled that thanks to this sell-off “Australia is poised to become a global energy superpower”, and implied that Chevron had done us a favour by accepting the deal.

In Pantera Press’s forthcoming debate book Big Australia Yes/No? (of which I did the No case) I wrote: My opponents claimWe will have enough food and water. They do not consider energy, without which neither food nor water can be supplied to large cities in a semi-desert continent. Yet Australia has recklessly sold off its energy resources…True, the 2010 Intergenerational Report Australia to 2050: future challenges, says on page 91 that our known reserves of natural gas would last about 70 years if we continue to use it at 2008 rates. But this is unlikely. After Peak Oil, gas may be used at far higher rates, and hence be gone in a fraction of the time.

We can’t assume that Australia will keep a strategic reserve of its own gas to protect us from the world peak in gas. Some experts predict global gas supplies will peak as early as 2020, though others predict no decline before 2030. Studies of how civilisations fall, such as Jared Diamond’s Collapse, show a common cause is that populations outgrow their resources.

Sure there are plenty of politicians and advisers who think there is no problem. Maybe by the time our gas runs out, we’ll have invented something else. Or we’ll have discovered another major field that some enlightened future government won’t sell off.

Yet we have a history of grossly over-estimating energy resources. The desire of exploration companies to boost their share-price by overstating a find combines with the tendency of journalists, once they have taken on a story about a find, to exaggerate its implications. We have often been assured we have centuries’ worth of a resource when in fact we have only decades.

The U.S. Professor of Statistics Albert Bartlett gives a withering account of this pattern in his article Arithmetic, Population and Energy. He points out that despite claims that the U.S. had “more than 500 years” of coal, and more recently that globally “coal will last us for at least 119 years,” it seems coal may in fact be peaking nowSimilar points are cogently made in Richard Heinberg’s Forward to the recent report Will Natural Gas Fuel America in the 21st Century?

And now even industry is getting worried, and claiming that our sell-off of gas may leave us short of energy as early as 2015. According to Andrew Liveris, the Australian CEO of Dow: “Most obviously, Australia has no evident energy strategy…You tend to get what you plan for. And if you don’t plan…

About the Author

Mark O’Connor is the author of This Tired Brown Land, and co-author of Overloading Australia: How governments and media dither and deny on population, by Mark O’Connor and William Lines. He blogs at He blogs at